But Is It Art?

by Cynthia Freeland

Well of course it is. I didn’t need to read this book to know that answer. But of course, I am always interested in hearing about/reading about other people’s opinions on Art, to see if they might knock a hole in my own theories, which have been 30 years or so in the making.

Freeland certainly knows a bit about art, and art history, and presents her case with care and good examples. The book is a brief tour through art history, with a very select group of examples taken from various periods – from the contemporary world of shock art such as Serrano’s Piss Christ or Hirst’s dead animals as well as from the ancient Greek tragedies, Goya’s anti-war paintings, Wagner’s operas… She covers many of the major theories expounded by certain art critics/theorists/philosophers, from Hume and Kant and their views on beauty and taste, art as imitation of nature or human endeavor, a la Plato and his techne, to more recent critics such as Dewey and Danto.

Institutional theory, ritual theory, how about expression theory, as expressed by Tolstoy: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced and having evoked it in oneself then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit this feeling that others experience the same feeling–this is the activity of art…”

Does imitation theory hold up any better:

“Since the late nineteenth century, imitation has seemed less and less to be the goal of many genres of art: impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction. Nor does the imitation theory leave room for our modern emphasis on the value of an artist’s individual sensibility and creative vision. Do Van Gogh’s or O’Keeffe’s irises impress us because they are accurate imitation? Plato would criticize these modern artists for creating mere images of Beauty–hopelessly striving to emulate something ineffable or Ideal. But that did not seem to be their aim, and we value Van Gogh’s or O’Keeffe’s flowers for other reasons.”

There are several other really interesting examples which Freeland spends more time elaborating. I myself looked at the Chartres cathedral in Art History class in school, and walked through the actual building in 1981. But in the present book I learned about the allegorical meaning of everything within a cathedral, such as the one at Chartres. The sculptures, the windows, the shapes of the stones, all told a story, and all related to the others:

“Chartres manifested an array of artistic expertise ranging from architectural design to the highly skilled labour of masons, woodcarvers, stone cutters, window painters, and others. Individuals of great ability worked here, perhaps receiving high pay and recognition, but ultimately subordinating their efforts to the spiritual purpose of the whole. The result of collaboration at Chartres is an overall harmony serving the three primary Gothic aesthetic principles of proportion, light, and allegory.”

Another place I visited in France was the palace at Versailles. Freeland describes how the gardens at Versailles were, like a cathedral, designed and created with much of the same intent and meaning. “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gardens were recognized as high artistic achievements.”

The theme seems to be that definitions of art have continually evolved, and will continue to do so. The cultural specifics and the historical milieu have their roles in determining the art of any given society, yes, okay, fair enough. This reminds me of something Steven Pinker said in his book, How the Mind Works:

“Theories of art carry the seeds of their own destruction. In an age when any Joe can buy CDs, paintings, and novels, artists make their careers by finding ways to avoid the hackneyed, to challenge jaded tastes, to differentiate the cognoscenti from the dilettantes, and to flout the current wisdom about what art is (hence the fruitless attempts over the decades to define art).” So let’s push forward, with a couple of newer theories:

John Dewey said that art “expresses the life of a community.” This is fairly close to Arthur Danto’s idea that culture determines what art can be. Warhol’s Brillo boxes are used to exemplify Danto’s definition of Art. “Danto argued [ ] that the artworld provides a background theory that an artist invokes when exhibiting something as art. This relevant ‘theory’ is not a thought in the artist’s head, but something the social and cultural context enables both artist and audience to grasp. Warhol’s gesture could not have been made as art in ancient Greece, medieval Chartres, or nineteenth-century Germany. With Brillo Boxes, Warhol demonstrated that anything can be a work of art, given the right situation and theory. So Danto concludes that a work of art is an object that embodies a meaning: ‘Nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such.’ [ ] Danto argues that in each time and context, the artist creates something as art by relying on a shared theory of art that the audience can grasp, given its historical and institutional context. Art doesn’t have to be a play, a painting, garden, temple, cathedral, or opera. It doesn’t have to be beautiful or moral, It doesn’t have to manifest personal genius or devotion to a god through luminosity, geometry, and allegory.”

But she’s preaching to the choir here, of course. Far more interesting to me is always the question of good art versus bad art, and how one can make the distinction. Freeland points out that artists can exhibit talent, training, and knowledge, and still have their work condemned because of the content they choose to depict. “Artistic talent” then would seem to have no bearing on whether a given piece is to be labeled Art. I would argue that the reverse is just as true: no talent or training or expertise is necessary for someone to produce a work of art. Or Art. The point is that questions of quality are secondary when what we are attempting to do is to define what Art is.

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